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Harvesting Ice

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

I often think of this long ago occupation as I pass by the ice cutting exhibit in the barn of St. Johnsbury History & Heritage. I have thought of this occupation more this winter due to the warmer weather and the freezing and thawing and how this would have affected the harvest. Obviously this first week of February would have helped the thickness of the ice! This occupation provided the blocks of ice needed for refrigeration during summer months. History & Heritage is most fortunate to have the ice cutting collection of Ned Handy, given by his wife Sarah and children Virginia, Marianne, Edward and Thomas in 2004. An added bonus were the pictures taken by Grant & Marjorie Heilman, who just happened to be passing by while they were cutting ice in Lyndonville in the early 1950’s. They documented the work so well that the exhibit in the barn can stand on its own by looking at the tools and then to the pictures hanging on the wall. The Heilman’s published articles in Vermont Life, Popular Mechanics, and various newspapers.

Many years ago I remember talking to Ned in his yard on Main Street when I was working on a class about ice cutting. I asked if I could borrow the pictures and copy them; the answer was “no”, they were not going to leave his home. But “yes” to coming up with an easel and camera and taking pictures of the pictures! The class eventually took shape with two handwritten pages of notes and slides made from the pictures I took that day.

Emigrating from the village of Wayda in the northern mountains of Lebanon, two uncles of Ned Handy arrived in Newport, Vermont in 1908. Here they started out as back-peddlers walking from farm to farm selling wares. In 1913, they bought the Newport Ice Company; the work was hard and the days long so more relatives were encouraged to come to the states. In time, the Handy Family had a monopoly on the ice business from Newport to Burlington. Ned entered the business at the age of 15 when his father, William, put a pair of ice tongs in his hands – the rest was history!

When one stands by the ice exhibit, the pictures were taken just leaving Lyndonville on Route 5, opposite the Sheffield Potato Shed building. You might well question that location today as it is not an impressive pond but an overgrown marshy area with any dams long gone! One job that is not documented by pictures was the constant clearing of the snow that fell prior to the harvesting. Ned said that 3 – 5 inches was shoveled by hand, over 5 inches was done with a plow. In the exhibit is a horse drawn plow used on Ticklenaked Pond in Ryegate by Leroy Nelson. Why, you ask? If the snow stayed on the ice, it acted as an insulator and the result would not be a solid, clear block of ice and no one was going to purchase inferior ice!

Time for the cutting. The scoring was done using the gasoline powered circular saw which went into the ice about 8 or 9 inches. The ice might vary from 12 to 20 inches thick. The machine had a guide bar that kept the blade 22 inches away from the last cut.

A man cuts ice with a gas powered circular saw.
Sam Handy is shown with the machine and he has ice-creepers on his boots for sure traction.

Once the pond was scored, it looked like a giant checkerboard with blocks 22 x 44 inches that could weigh up to 500 pounds each. (Just a side note – that machine was one of the most difficult things to move to our site!!)

Two men saw and break ice.
Sawing and breaking ice.

After the scoring, each side of a series of blocks had to be cut through entirely with a long handled ice saw and then the line of blocks were broken off individually with a breaking bar. Long pike poles with a push – pull handle allowed the blocks to be directed to the icehouse ramp at the end of the pond. Once there, a pulley system powered by a truck brought the blocks up to the inside of the icehouse. Inside the house the ice was packed by men hooking onto the blocks with shorter handled pike poles. There was a slope to the ramp coming into the house with large threaded bolts that would slow the blocks but still kept movement so the blocks could be packed together forming another layer of the floor. In-house or drag ice tongs (long handled) were used for pulling blocks into place.

Three men move ice blocks into place inside an icehouse.
Ice entering and handled with pike pole which swung blocks into place - notice clarity of ice!

At the end of the day, the channel was cleared of all blocks and if there was another day required to finish the pond, then the scored grooves on the outside edge facing the open water had to be blocked so that water was not allowed in, requiring a repeat of the whole scoring process! What kept the ice from melting well into the summer before delivery? The icehouse shown here was 100 feet long, 25 feet high, 30 feet wide, and double boarded with 8 inches of sawdust between the boards. Hay was placed on the top layer. When I asked Ned what the loss of ice was due to the rise in temperature over time, he answered with only 5 or 6 percent over that time!

Men work outside an icehouse.

The pictures in the exhibit were taken in Lyndonville, but the process was the same in most other locations. In St. Johnsbury, they had icehouses on Sumner Ave (now Gilman Ave,) to Farmer Drive. They had 3 icehouses, damming the brook for each ice house. Ned recalled that if it snowed just prior to Thanksgiving, the option was to scrape the ponds either before or after dinner and they always chose before so they could work up an appetite.

The delivery of the ice might result in a 4:30 a.m. start and a 7:30-8:00 p.m. finish. First the blocks had to be gotten out of the icehouse and loaded onto delivery trucks. Sometimes a lifting bar was required to free the blocks. To avoid needless stops, customers were given an ice sign to place in their window. Some ice signs told what size they wanted, depending on how the sign was placed. An average home delivery by the Handy’s was 50 – 60 pounds. Delivery wagons had shorter ice tongs than the icehouse ones, an ice axe which had a cutting edge and a spear on the opposite for pulling blocks toward them. Two other items might make up the delivery wagon inventory; a dipper for washing off the block of ice, freeing it from any sawdust, and a rubber ice apron to protect the shoulder if he chose to carry the blocks on his back. The Handy’s delivered to the farmers and creameries in the afternoon, which might well require multiple 500 lb. blocks. Handy prices were 50 cents per 100 pound delivery; 4 dollars a ton to farmers and 3 dollars a ton to creameries. The Handy’s filled an icehouse that belonged to Hood’s Creamery at the bottom of Hastings Hill.

Sign advertising Handy Ice
Sign advertising Handy Ice

By the 1940’s, the ice harvesting business was winding down and electric refrigerators were replacing the ice man with his dirty shoes and dripping blocks of ice! The Handy family may have been one of the last ones to cut ice commercially as they finished in 1952. Ned’s comment to me was that probably it was a good thing, as it was getting harder to find folks that wanted to work that hard! What a history lesson I received on the lawn of the Handy home on Main Street.

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